Stress Interviews
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Stress Interviews

There is much talk on MSN about stress interviews in industry. Young people with appropriate skills and CV’s are bullied and demeaned to see how resilient they are under stressful conditions. Personal remarks about their appearance, posture, tastes and previous performance are made to make the candidate as uncomfortable as possible, hoping to elicit a reaction. The ‘successful’ candidate would be unruffled throughout.
As a Royal College representative on interview committees for about 20 years and having a lot of practical experience as an examiner, I think I may be allowed a comment.

I don’t think you get the best out of a candidate or reveal how they react if you over-stress them. As the examiner/interviewer you know as soon as they walk in whether they are nervous. They will be anxious if they want the job – it’s common sense. With experience and concentration, you can tell how nervous they are. You don’t need to stress them because applying for a job and being interviewed is a stressful process.
If one of the criteria for the job is to see how they handle stress this can be demonstrated from situations in which they have found themselves previously and how they responded. Ask them. If the interviewer has a little imagination and is sharp enough, they can glean the answer from the question/response without increasing the adrenaline levels and Dopamine release in the interviewee’s head. Let’s face it, the candidate who vomits on the desk as soon as you ask a question is an extreme example, but so is the unemotional, unresponsive candidate, whose body language indicates a complete lack of interest. It’s the one in between these two extremes who are interesting and require some effort on the part of the interviewer.

The correct way to delve deep into someone’s head in an interview is maybe not something one is born with – it is a learned skill, it is analogous to writing strong dialogue in a book. If you have to qualify your speech line with -ly adverbs then you’ve failed to make the reader understand the content of the speech (like, ‘he said angrily’- if you don’t know the speaker is angry then the dialogue isn’t strong enough – you don’t need to tell your reader that it is so). In an interview for a stressful job you don’t need to make the candidate uncomfortable or stressed – if you do then you need to go learn how to read people properly.

In neurosurgery consultant interviews, I usually use a question of the type: ‘I’ve been a neurosurgeon for over 30 years, and I’ve made every mistake possible. What is your worst clinical mistake and tell us how you dealt with it?’

I stole that question from Professor John Pickard from Cambridge – a man much brighter than I am.

This question starts by saying – ‘You’re among friends, whatever mistake you tell us about won’t be seen as horrendous.’

This lets the candidate know that the interviewer understands that mistakes can happen. This of course is a trap. The quality of the mistake described could indicate a complete idiot depending on circumstance.
The next part of the question examines honesty. One candidate replied with, ‘I’ve never made a serious mistake but one of my colleagues…’ Believe me, if he had got to that stage of his career never making a serious mistake then he must be a God not a neurosurgeon. He didn’t get the job – either he was dishonest or lacked insight.

The best answers are honest and demonstrate what the candidates did to correct their mistake and how learned from them. The latter is probably the most important part of the answer – can this candidate learn from the mistake?

My point and bottom line, is that one does not need to make people feel uncomfortable – it doesn’t tell you anything. It doesn’t show you their best ability. You need to ask skilful questions which reveal who the candidate really is. Making them angry or sad isn’t the answer and it certainly doesn’t show that the interviewer is powerful – quite the contrary. Weak people lacking confidence thrive on other peoples discomfort and for them interviews are a way of bolstering their grandiosity and feeling of power.

Be nice to people and they’ll be nice to you.

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